ON THE RECORD: Syracuse and Oklahoma!, via Rodgers

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Syracuse and Oklahoma!, via Rodgers The centennial year of the birth of Richard Rodgers has just been celebrated, with considerably more fanfare than that accorded Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and George Gershwin combined. This is understandable, in a way. Rodgers had two distinct careers as a songwriter. He would be equally celebrated had he only written the nine Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, from 1943 through 1959. Before joining Oscar, however, he wrote almost 30 musicals with Lorenz (Larry) Hart. These scores include more than enough sublimely beautiful songs to have brought Rodgers lasting fame, even without Hammerstein.

The centennial year of the birth of Richard Rodgers has just been celebrated, with considerably more fanfare than that accorded Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and George Gershwin combined. This is understandable, in a way. Rodgers had two distinct careers as a songwriter. He would be equally celebrated had he only written the nine Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, from 1943 through 1959. Before joining Oscar, however, he wrote almost 30 musicals with Lorenz (Larry) Hart. These scores include more than enough sublimely beautiful songs to have brought Rodgers lasting fame, even without Hammerstein.

Rodgers' career spanned 60 years, from his first Broadway show in 1920 (a failure) to his last in 1979 (also a failure). But ah, what came between! He was at his best — or near best — from 1925 to 1965, a full four decades. Kern, Berlin, Porter and Gershwin were all unquestionably brilliant, with their own distinctive sound; but Rodgers' work is more familiar by far, for several reasons. His longevity and the size of his catalogue have something to do with it; so does the calendar, as the pre-1924 work of the others comes from an era that — relatively speaking — sounds musically dated to our ears.

Most importantly, Rodgers was a musical dramatist, unlike the others (except Kern in his later years). Rodgers musicals dominated the field that he helped formulate; ten or so of his shows are still stageworthy in the twenty-first century, compared to — what? One from Kern, one from Berlin, two from Porter and one Gershwin opera.

The Rodgers Centennial was fueled by determination, too. Continued income from all those songs and all those shows, plus Rodgers' other business interests, allows for full-time promotion of the family patriarch. And full time promotion of the family patriarch keeps the sound of his music a cherished and valuable trademark. Over the last year, the public at large has been reminded of just how rich Rodgers' two careers were, and how his music remains fresh and vital and "younger than springtime."

People interested in such matters have also learned — for the first time, in such detail — that he was not a sweetheart. But what of it? Any number of nasty, alcoholic, womanizing egoists have come along in the last hundred years; there are even some of them around today. Most lived and died with little accomplishment and were quickly forgotten. Anyone who can create such exquisite beauties as "Spring is Here" or "Where or When?" or "It Never Entered My Mind" or "If I Loved You" gets my vote. The year has seen a slew of Rodgers-related events and releases, including some rediscoveries that might just as well have stayed unrediscovered. Two Rodgers CDs happen to be near the top of my stack of CDs-to-be-reviewed, and are hereby addressed.

THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE Decca Broadway 422 882 281
The 1938 musical comedy The Boys from Syracuse is one of my very favorite Rodgers scores; I place it among the top two on my Rodgers and Hart list. Simply removing a Syracuse CD from its jewel case makes me beam with anticipation.

This is a score with three supremely beautiful love songs, "The Shortest Day of the Year," "You Have Cast Your Shadow on the Sea" and the bittersweet "Falling in Love with Love"; two truly buoyant numbers, the ballad-hit "This Can't Be Love" and the jaunty "Dear Old Syracuse"; two wickedly funny put down duets, "What Can You Do with a Man" and "He and She"; and one of Broadway's most rousing vocal novelties, "Sing for Your Supper." There's also a nifty opening number with ever-so-deft lyrics, "He Had Twins," and a rousing 11 o-clock song in "Oh, Diogenes."

Where in the entire history of musical comedy, I ask, will you find such a lineup as that? I can think of a few similarly pleasurable scores; Babes in Arms, Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady spring to mind. But it isn't common, and it isn't easy.

The first theatrical recording of the score didn't come until 1953, when Goddard Lieberson and Lehman Engel included it in their parade of studio cast albums of musicals from the pre-LP era [Sony Broadway SK 53329]. This featured Jack Cassidy — at his golden-voiced best — singing the roles of the two Antipholus twins (which are necessarily played by two actors onstage); Bibi Osterwald and Stanley Prager doing the comedy material; and Portia Nelson (who had top billing on the recording) as Adriana, singing "Falling in Love with Love." The orchestrations were uncredited; however, they seem to have used Hans Spialek's originals for all but four or five numbers, which were given a more contemporary feel. (For some reason I seem to think these were by Ted Royal, but cannot confirm that.) This album — for so many years the only accurate representation of the original score — was invaluable and remains a joy.

Syracuse was given a twenty-fifth anniversary revival in 1963, Off Broadway at Theatre Four. The show was highly successful, running 502 performances (compared to the original 235, in the Depression year of 1938). The CD of that production [Broadway Angel ZDM 0777 7 64695] is a delight, sparked by Larry Wilcox's orchestrations and the indomitable Karen Morrow as the comedic Luce. It was directed by Christopher Hewett (who acted in My Fair Lady, First Impressions and memorably created the role of Roger De Bris in the film The Producers). The revival was remounted later that year by Rodgers at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London. Unsuccessfully so, running only 100 performances.

Most recently, City Center Encores! presented a sterling concert version in 1997; the cast included Davis Gaines and Malcolm Gets as the Antipholus twins, Mario Cantone and Michael McGrath as the Dromio twins, Rebecca Luker, Sarah Uriarte Berry as the leading ladies and Debbie Gravitte as Luce. Rob Fisher and Larry Moore oversaw the restoration of Spialek's original work, making it the most authentic Syracuse recording [DRG 94767]. As I write this, another major production of the show is being rehearsed for an August opening at the Roundabout.

Decca Broadway has now brought us the fourth cast album of the show on CD, this being the 1963 London production. As previously stated, I'm always glad to listen to this score, and a "new" version is reason for cheer. I suppose I must admit this is the least indispensable of the four, but I'm glad to have it. Bob Monkhouse, an enormously popular television comedian at the time, is top cast (as Antipholus of Syracuse). He does quite well, considering that he was not principally a stage performer. Denis Quilley plays the other Antipholus and is especially good on "The Shortest Day of the Year." The other performers, unfamiliar hereabouts, are generally attractive.

What makes this recording of great interest is the presence of orchestrator Ralph Burns. (Oddly enough, he is uncredited on this release; I have searched the packaging and the 22-page booklet six times now, but still cannot find his name anywhere.) A pianist and arranger, Burns joined Woody Herman's band in 1943 and became prominent in recordings through the fifties. He became a top Broadway orchestrator with his remarkable work on the 1962 Rodgers musical No Strings. This was his third Broadway show, actually; the first two were quick failures that went unrecorded, Strip for Action (which closed on the road in 1956) and Copper and Brass (1957). No Strings was followed by Little Me, Funny Girl, Fade Out — Fade In, Golden Boy, Rodgers's Do I Hear a Waltz, Sweet Charity and dozens of other shows.

Burns was presumably offered the Off-Broadway Syracuse. He had his hands full at the time, with the much-delayed Hot Spot (composed by Mary Rodgers); I suppose that Ralph handed the job to Wilcox, who was his friend and frequent ghost. When Syracuse needed a fuller-scale orchestration for London, Rodgers turned to Ralph. Surprisingly, Larry's Syracuse is more enjoyable. Ralph's charts really swing in places, understandably so as he was a renowned swing-band arranger. But at this point in his stage career — as far as I can tell, this was his first try at a "legit" sound — Burns seems less comfortable with the gentler material. He seems to be experimenting, with interesting but not-necessarily-suitable results. Parts of the score sound like enhancements of the Off-Broadway charts and were presumably ghosted by Larry.

So this recording of the show is not the finest; but it is still enjoyable, with some sterling swing sections (notably in "Dear Old Syracuse" and "Oh, Diogenes"). Decca Broadway has happily added as bonus material the mini album "Song Hits from The Boys from Syracuse." This includes six selections recorded shortly after the opening, with non-show arrangements, by Rudy Vallee and Frances Langford. Ms. Langford's sides are especially listenable.

Let me add that while those extensive liner notes don't mention the orchestrator, they do tell us about "the simple scalar melody and the easy modulation to the relative minor on the fourth line" of the opening number. Another song makes "musical reference to Schubert's famous setting of 'Gretchen am Spinnrade' from Goethe's Faust, with its celebrated 16th note figure." Yet another, we are told, "seems redolent of some Brecht-Weill song of disillusionment." Say what???

As Larry Hart, faced with this analysis, might well have said about Dick Rodgers: "I never thought he had it in him."

OKLAHOMA! Sony Classical 61876
Columbia's second studio cast album of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, conversely, is totally dispensable. Lieberson and Engel recorded the score early on in their series in 1952. In 1964, Columbia — with neither Lieberson nor Engel's involvement — decided to give it another try.

The only plus — and, presumably, the sole reason for this recording — was the presence of John Raitt. The Theatre Guild found him in 1943, singing Escamillo in Carmen, in Pasadena. They brought Raitt east to audition for Rodgers and Hammerstein, who were starting work on Carousel. Look, here comes Billy Bigelow! To get him some stage experience, and to keep him from taking another job in the meantime, R & H gave him a replacement job in the first national company of Oklahoma!.

Raitt might well have been the perfect Curly. Here was an all-American type from the far West (Santa Ana, California), with a warmly charming voice as big as the plains; the original Curly was an Italian-American from Brooklyn, Alfred Drake (ne Alfredo Capurro). Raitt sings the notes, all right, with a combination of genuine friendliness and cocky assurance that fits the role so well.

But this recording of Oklahoma! was newly orchestrated by Philip J. Lang, and this turned out to be an awful idea. The corn is as high as an elephant's eye, yes, but it's slathered with corn syrup. The songs are so sweetened with living strings that you'll want to just get off the elevator and climb the stairs, if you know what I mean. Franz Allers, he of My Fair Lady, conducts and compounds the problem. "People Will Say We're in Love" is so gently paced that it sounds like the couple is celebrating their golden wedding anniversary, while "Out of My Dreams" is totally somnolent.

One could excuse these orchestrations in part by supposing that Lang was purposely avoiding anything that sounded like the originals by his mentor, Robert Russell Bennett. But no; some of the charts, like "Pore Jud Is Daid" and "Lonely Room," are very close to Bennett's. It's hard to understand how Lang — who by this point had already done vibrant work on shows like Li'l Abner and Carnival — could have turned in such a dreary job. Maybe Columbia asked him to score something suitable for Muzak.

Raitt is worth listening to nevertheless, and his fans will be happy to get this album. Florence Henderson, who joined the national company seven years after Raitt left, sings Laurey; she was only nine when Oklahoma! first hit Broadway. She is adequate, displaying none of the personality of her recorded performances in The Girl Who Came to Supper and Rodgers' 1967 revival of South Pacific. The latter album is languishing in the Columbia/Sony archives and would have been a far better choice for inclusion in the Columbia Broadway Masterworks series than this Oklahoma!. —Steven Suskin, author of the new "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books.